In early 2001, I read Millennials Rising, by William Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of Generations and The Fourth Turning.
They predicted, in the optimistic 1990s when it was unthinkable, that we’d approach a Fourth Turning, or crisis, this century. This seems to be coming true.
On the other hand, they predicted that my generation (Millennials) would rise to be civic heroes, reversing the trend of institutional decay that began in the 1980s. So far, that doesn’t seem to be happening.
Instead, the most successful among us are not reversing decay, but profiting from it. Mark Zuckerberg and Lena Dunham aren’t successful because they restored a troubled civilization to health, but because they’ve figured out how to thrive in this post-apocalyptic landscape: a world of economic decline, permanent immaturity, and cultural anomie.
The popular opinion about us Millennials seems to be the opposite of what Strauss and Howe predicted: it’s that we’re lazy, whiny, apathetic brats. That’s not true. Nor is it entirely false. The less-than-climactic revelation about each generation seems to me to be that none is worse or better than any other, taken in toto.
We look like shit right now– with Zuckerberg running for President, and Dunham commanding a $3-million book deal as “the voice of our generation”– because the people in the limelight are those who promoted by Boomers. Given that, how would we not look like shit? What else would one expect? It may change; give it time.
Ascribing moral value to a generation is a tricky business, and I have a hard time buying into it. After all, segregationists like George Wallace and Strom Thurmond were part of the “Greatest Generation”; arch-thug Bull Connor only missed it by a few years. They were repulsive! The organizationally adept Greatest Generation gave us the Rotary Club, but it also revived the Klan. Let’s not white-wash it.
Of course, it’s fashionable for young people to hate the Boomers. In general, I don’t think Boomers are an exception to my statement that no generation is, in an individual moral sense, better or worse than any other. The Boomer 1%, the current global leadership, has been an atrocious nightmare. We cannot tear them down fast enough. But most Boomers aren’t part of the elite that draws this (deserved) hatred. The worst-off victims of our nightmare society are, in fact, Boomers; many of the young will recover from this mess, but the 73-year-old who is bagging groceries despite his bad back, or the 59-year-old programmer who just got fired (“too old”) by his spoiled shithead Xer/Millennial bosses, will not. Toward the vast majority of Boomers who are merely middle or working class, we should feel empathy– not resentment.
Why Boomer Hatred Exists
Why do people hate Baby Boomers so much? They’re blamed for the abrupt decay in the quality of American economic and social leadership. The collapse was brutal, and it continues, but to blame it on one generation is, in my view, somewhat of a mistake. Decay started before Boomers were in charge, under the Silent Generation. It has continued, in Silicon Valley, under Gen X and the Millennials. No one generation deserves all the blame for this mess.
The standard narrative is this: Very Bad Things happened in the 1920s to ’40s, but the Greatest Generation heroically rose up saved us from the Depression and Hitler, and built us a society with a large middle class. They saved capitalism by integrating what was good about socialism, they sent their soldiers off to college and became the generation of warrior-scholars that made America great. Then, the Boomers, never knowing hardship, came and ruined it because… instead of building on what their parents gave them, they wanted to smoke pot at Woodstock (in the ’60s) and snort coke on Wall Street (in the ’80s) and then rise to the top of Corporate America, poison the environment, and pull the ladder up from under them (in the ’00s). Self-indulgent and narcissistic all the way, they ran our society into the ground. Their elders said that of them, half a century ago; we’re saying it now. Is it true? Self-indulgent narcissists exist in every generation, and I find no evidence that their numbers are worse in any particular one. We should, instead, indict the cultural factors that brought such people, at one point in time, to the top of society.
What’s wrong with the “standard narrative” above? To start, it’s U.S.-centric. Include more countries, and generational theory becomes harder to keep together. I’m guessing that Germany doesn’t call its World War II veterans, “The Greatest Generation”. As for the Baby Boomers, in this country, there’s no question that their leadership has been atrocious. In that regard, they may be the worst we’ve had. Yet, when we slag Boomers– painting them as that spoiled generation that had everything and left us nothing– we forget about black Boomers and gay Boomers and coal miner Boomers in West Virginia.
“Globalism” is sometimes given as an explanation for American decline, but it raises more questions. Globalism is both desirable and inevitable. As a creative, I say: we need every audience we can get. So yes, dammit, I’m a globalist. I wrote a card game, Ambition, that has been published in print… in Japan. I’m writing a book (Farisa’s Crossing, for publication in 2018 or ’19) and most of the readers I’ll want to reach are not in the U.S.
Globalism shall continue; we can’t ignore it. We can’t rewind our economy back to 1960. On globalism, we need to do it right.
There’s a perception in the U.S. that globalism occurs at the expense of the American (increasingly former) middle class. Is it true? Not really. The rich, including American rich, are making out like bandits while the middle class shrinks and suffers. We’re losing money to our own top 0.1 percent– not the people rising out of poverty. (Remember: that’s a good thing.) We’re not being stabbed in the back by the middle class of India; we’re being stabbed in the back by our own elite.
Some have argued that our morally restrained “national elite” lost out to the execrable “global elite”: the Davos Men who pine for the 1937 Germany, when fascism was good for business but before it started killing people; the Arab oil sheikhs with harems and child brides; the businessmen in China who bust unions with machine guns; the murderous dictators of sub-Saharan Africa.
For sure, the global elite is disgusting. We must face up to this, though: our national elite is, even today, a plurality contingent of the global elite. The crimes of the world do not come from “savage” people overseas. They come directly from the top of a socioeconomic order that our elite, even to this day, maintains. The global elite are not a cabal; they do not meet in one room, and self-interest explains their cohesion and operation. We do not need “Conspiracy theories” when lower-case-c conspiracies exist all around us and suffice to explain what’s happening. Though no upper-case-C “Conspiracy to rule them all” exists– that’s a fantasy, for if it were true one could blow up the room where they meet– the fact is that a tiny oligarchy (of, perhaps, a couple thousand people) now makes almost all of the important decisions.
We ascribe relative virtue to our national elite, as opposed to the global one, because… let me recite the popular narrative… they got us out of the Depression, they saved capitalism by tempering it with the best elements of socialism, they defeated the Nazis and Fascists and Japanese Imperialists, they gave us cars and spacious suburban homes, and they built a mid-century pax americana. They were charitable, their rich didn’t mind being taxed at marginal rates over 80 percent, and they founded companies using “Theory Y” management, because they cared about their workers. They made America Great, the story tells us, and it was the globalists or the Boomers or the liberals or conservatives (depending on whom one asks) who made us un-great.
We need to understand the era in which we had a relatively virtuous elite. What caused it? What made them operate with such (unusual, as elites go) restraint? Why did they allow the 1930s-80s prosperity to occur?
Our national elite was not born into superior virtue. The American elite of the First Gilded Age was just as crooked and onerous as the global elite of this Second Gilded Age. That should give us hope; if the American elite let up in the 1930s to ’70s, perhaps the global one will let up in the future. Our national elite (the “WASP Establishment”) grew content to be merely rich, as they were in the 1950s, rather than brutally hegemonic, as they are today. Why? During the Depression, there was a real threat, in every country, of communist overthrow. Being rational humans, people in the American national elite chose graceful relative decline rather than the guillotines. Smart call. That made life better for all of us. We got to a point where people, even of moderate means, could afford international air travel. Add technology to that, and we became a global society. It’s not a bad thing, and it couldn’t have been prevented.
Here’s what happened in the 1980s: our young rich met the young rich of other countries, and they felt they came up short. If you’re an American millionaire and you drive 150 miles an hour on the freeway, then crash and kill someone, you go to jail. If you’re an entertainment executive who sodomizes a 13-year-old girl, you’ll be charged with rape. Meanwhile, Arab oil sheikhs own harems, can murder the poor of their own countries with impunity, and import slave labor for domestic help. The mere two-digit millionaires of the American elite met the hegemonic billionaires of less evolved societies and asked themselves, “Why can’t we have that?”
Starting in the late 1970s, the American elite began shucking off moral restraint and pushing the bounds of decency. Drum circles and marijuana gave way to cocaine-fueled Studio 54 elitism. The rich manipulated politics to give themselves tax cuts, turning some of the most effective governments in the world (our federal, state, and local governments) into underfunded, dysfunctional messes. Those who’d climbed the proverbial corporate ladder pulled it up, then learned how to pit the people at the bottom against each other, so they’d ignore what was really happening. In the 2010s, dormant racial tensions re-emerged, as our upper classes relied on old techniques for keeping the poor divided and conquered.
This slow-motion national catastrophe, still grinding on, happened while the Baby Boomers were in charge. Did it happen because they were an evil generation? No. As I’ve said, they have no fewer or more scumbags than any other generation; but, there has been a climate over the past few decades in which bad people have a disproportionate likelihood of rising into leadership roles. We’re becoming a global society and we haven’t yet figured out how to do it right.
Institutional decay: double or nothing
One of the reasons why the future’s hard to predict is that, in any era, there will be things that seem bizarre, out of place, or otherwise wrong. Call them anomalies. A digital something-rather called a “bit coin” should not be worth $15,000, am I right? Oughtn’t that go right to zero, and soon, having less utility than a tulip bulb? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Tulip bulbs were a great investment for decades.
One might expect anomalies to mean-revert out of existence. Yet, each of those artifacts exists for some reason– little of impact is truly random— and it is often as probable that the anomaly will double itself up, before it gets worked out of the system. Let me be concrete. In the late ’90s, people recognized that dot-com stocks were overvalued and short-sold them. Many of these short-sellers got hit with margin calls and were wiped out. They were right– there was a dot-com bubble– but they timed its end poorly and they lost. As John Maynard Keynes said, “The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.” Every anomaly has a force behind it, a positive-feedback loop, that wishes to increase. So, when you bet on an anomaly, either in current with or against it, you’re making a “double or nothing” bet.
Furthermore, it is difficult in the grand scheme to know what is anomalous and what is genuine permanent change.
For a brutally relevant example, a society with a large middle class, in which the richest people and the most powerful institutions behave with a reasonable degree of moral decency is, although desirable, anomalous. It existed in the U.S. between, approximately, 1940 and 2000. We are seeing an erosion of that society, as we revert to something more similar to the naked elitism of, say, 18th century Europe. Some have argued that a prosperous society of any kind is anomalous, and that a cause like global warming or fossil fuel depletion will imminently drive us back to the poverty that dominated most of human history. I don’t subscribe to that view, though it is intellectually defensible.
On the other hand, historical trends show technical progress and it’s nearly monotonic. Even in the Dark Ages (the main losers of which were the Roman elite; average Europeans were hardly affected) technology improved. In 2017, birth control has permanently eliminated our tendency toward involuntary overpopulation. Automation has eradicated the need for many kinds of painful and dangerous labor. So, perhaps the bad times we’re having now are but a minor dip in an upward-sloping road. I find Donald Trump repugnant, but I don’t think he’s anywhere near Mussolini or Hitler. It’s reasonable to conclude that, while the first third of the 21st century will be unpleasant for the American middle class, our global progress toward prosperity shall go impeded. Will it? I don’t know. I hope so.
Which analysis is right? It’s hard to say. I’m a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist. The atrocious economic, political, social and cultural leadership that the United States now experiences will not die out just because the Boomers vacate. Generation X and Millennials are fully capable of continuing the decay. The main reason Millennials have a bad reputation is that, right now, most Millennials in prominence are human garbage– because they’re the ones who were promoted by the Boomer elite. I believe that chaos and probable violence live in our future. The Class War– a necessary process, because the global elite needs to learn the same lesson that the American national one did in the 1930s– will be ugly.
For my part, ugliness is not what I ever wish for. I’d like to see the Class War won by the right side, without violence. Violence begets chaos, and the petty reward of vengeance (however deserving the target) is never worth the risk of harm to innocents. However, history cares not about my preference for nonviolent resolution; it will do what it wills itself to do.
Millennials Rising predicted that my generation would repair the institutional decay that started under the Baby Boomers– a decay that became inevitable once our national elite re-polarized and joined the global elite. I don’t see it happening yet. I see willful continuation of decay. It’s quite profitable; as Littlefinger said in Game of Thrones, chaos is a ladder.
Let’s look at that supposed bastion of innovation, Silicon Valley. The main innovation to come out of venture-funded technology has nothing to do with science, computation, or technology itself. It’s the disposable company. The true executives of this brave new economy are venture capitalists, and so-called “founders” are middle managers who must manage up into Sand Hill Road. The difference is the ease with which a company can be crumpled up and thrown in the wastebasket. Pesky workers want a union? No Series D for you! Founder-level sexual harassment issues causing bad press? Scrap the company, start again, and try not to get caught this time.
An old-style corporation, when it scrapped a project, would find something else for people to do. Workers on the failed project were deemed innocent and would be eligible for transfer to more promising work within the company. The postmodern corporate entity of Sand Hill Road, when it decides a company is unfundable– note that supposedly competing investors, in fact, collude and make decisions in concert– sentences it to death. Jobs end. One cannot meet investor expectations without unsustainable spending, which means that none of these companies will survive unless they continue to raise funding. This, of course, gives investors managerial power, so founders must preserve their reputations among the Sand Hill Road oligarchy at all costs. What happens, then when a project/company gets scrapped, to the workers? You might guess, “They get laid off.” True, but it’s made worse than that. An old-style company would own up to an honest layoff. Venture-funded companies don’t want the negative press, so they claim they’re firing people for performance. The number of companies that claim never to have laid anyone off, but have politically-charged “low performer initiatives” (stack ranking) any time executives screw up and lose money, is astonishing.
In this less-than-ethical climate, institutions rust quickly. People realize their employers have no sense of loyalty or fair play, and they reciprocate. I’d guess that eighty percent of people lie on their CVs, and it’s hard to blame them in an industry where bait-and-switch hiring is the norm, and where dishonesty to employees is business-as-usual. (Lie to investors, though, and that’s “pound-me-in-the-ass” prison.) If a company can lie about the career benefits of a job it offers, can’t an employee fudge his own political success– or, shall we indulge the fiction and use the term “performance”?– at previous jobs? I don’t care to unpack this particular topic; what’s moral is one debate. What is, is what interests me here. We don’t have a culture that strengthens institutions or builds durable ones. We have one that builds flimsy companies that either decay rapidly or “disrupt” some other industry, capturing great wealth quickly at some external expense. We have a culture where everyone lies and no one trusts anyone, and where everything’s falling apart.
The Daily Anomaly
I expect Corporate America to melt down under the Millennials, but I can’t say when it’ll happen. As I’ve said, predicting the future is hard; anomalies can double up multiple times before they dissipate.
Corporate work is somewhat of a joke these days. People spend 8-12 hours per day defending an income and their professional status, and very little of that time is spent actually working. The weird irony of American life is that people’s leisure activities are more work-like than their paid jobs. They hunt, read, write, hike, run, garden, and sail on their weekends. What do they do at “work”? Sit an office and try not to get fired. If that means slacking, they slack; if that means working, they work. Their only real goal is protect an income. It’s not intellectually or physically demanding, but it’s obnoxiously stressful. Until we establish a universal basic income (which will save work, not destroy it; as the New Deal saved capitalism) this will be a reality for most white-collar Americans. We recognize corporate “work” as a stupid game people are forced to play.
Automation will destroy jobs. Good. Fuck “jobs”. If we had a universal basic income, no one would shed a tear about the elimination of unpleasant labor from human life. We don’t miss death by “consumption” in 2017, and no one in 2117 will wish he’d been around to spend 50 hours per week in a box, doing a job that a robot can do using 53 cents’ worth of electricity. At some point, we won’t have to work in the way we do now. We can recognize the grand joke that is American-style office work as an anomaly. Will it go away soon, without pain? I doubt it.
Self-driving trucks are an unemployment time bomb. Consider not only the truck driving jobs, but the jobs in support of that industry. Hotels and restaurants in the Kobless Interior will fold. It’ll be a catastrophe.
Upper-middle-class office workers feel safe from this. Here’s what no one’s yet talking about, and it’s going to hit the whole middle class: inelasticity.
During the oil shocks of the 1970s, the fuel’s supply only decreased by about 5 percent, but prices went up several hundred percent. The same thing’s going to happen to wages, in the opposite direction. Laid-off truck drivers aren’t stupid. They’ll move into other trades, driving wages down. They’ll go into code boot camps. We’ll see wage inelasticity: a small increase in labor availability will cause wages to plummet, disproportionately, and beyond what most people expect. It will ripple throughout the entire middle-class job market. No job is safe. Will there be computer programmers in 2030? Without a doubt, there will be. Will they make the money they do now? I doubt it.
This notion may seem far-fetched, but consider some of what our society does already to limit the labor supply, just because the stakes are so high. We imprison so many people, I would argue, for this reason; we are, then, preventing wage collapse, albeit at an unacceptable moral cost. Draconian drug laws keep people off the job market. Within the middle class, the arms race for educational credentials exists toward a similar end: society self-corrects against wage collapse by pushing people into school, thus out of the workforce, even though the individuals pushed into schooling (often, unnecessary for the jobs they’ll be able to get) must accrue unsustainable debt in order to be there.
Self-driving vehicles will save lives. Without a doubt, we want to see them developed and used. However, if we don’t have a universal basic income (and I doubt that we will) by the time this disemployment time-bomb goes off… we are so, so, so fucked.
Millennials recognize corporate “work” for what it is. Yet, they still go. They have no other choice. Why do they put up with it?
Here’s a parable, perhaps a riddle, that explains it; and the counterintuitive answer gets to why it’s so hard to predict future human behavior.
On Green-Eye Island, it’s illegal to have blue eyes (to simplify, everyone has green or blue eyes). If you know that your eyes are blue, you must leave the island at sunset. However, no one discusses eye color, and there are no mirrors. Of the people who live there, exactly 10 have blue eyes. These people are perfectly logical and follow the rules to the letter.
They’ve lived in harmony, each blissfully ignorant of their own eye color, for years. People see others with blue eyes (if they have blue eyes, they see 9 others with blue eyes; if they have brown eyes, they see 10).
One day an outsider, the Man In Black, comes to the island and says, “At least one of you has blue eyes.” What happens?
The intuitive answer is, “Nothing.” He is not telling them something they don’t already know. Right? In fact, the answer is: ten nights later, all the blue eyed people leave. This is a weird result. On the surface of it, the Man In Black offers no new information; yet, he causes a change in behavior.
Why? It works like this. Let’s consider the case where there were only one blue-eyed person, this information (that at least one person has blue eyes) would be new to her; not seeing anyone else with blue eyes, she’d know that her eyes are blue, and leave the island that same night.
If one night passes and no one leaves, this means there are at least two people with blue eyes. If so, then each of them will see only one other person with blue eyes and know that they have to leave, on the second night.
So, let’s say that two nights have passed and no one has left. This means there are at least 3 people with blue eyes. And so on. In the example where 10 people have blue eyes, nine nights pass and no one leaves the island. Each person with blue eyes realizes that there are, in fact, at least 10 people with blue eyes… and seeing only nine others, they must leave.
Before the Man In Black came, everyone knew that at least one person had blue eyes, but it wasn’t common knowledge. Common knowledge is stronger than that: it requires that everyone knows, and that everyone knows that everyone knows, and that everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows, and so on. In the example above, we have nine levels of “everyone knows”, but not ten… until the Man In Black establishes common knowledge.
Played by real people, I doubt this simulation would go on as described. People are not fully logical; they do not immediately deduce all things they could know from the information they have, as that would be computationally impossible. What would happen if this game were played out with real people? Probably nothing. Not only are we not perfectly logical, but we cannot reasonably assume that everyone else is perfectly logical.
The example above shows, in principle, how the promotion of shared knowledge (everyone knows it) to common knowledge (everyone knows everyone knows everyone knows…) can be powerful.
In Corporate America, there seems to be a similar shift underway, from shared to common knowledge.
Most individuals recognize the absurdity. People enter this miserable contest, chasing the 0.01% chance of becoming so famous, rich, or important that they no longer have to play. It’s ridiculous: they club each other, with the goal of getting out of the room where clubbings occur.
The rewards are artificially scarce and delayed, the game is hopelessly corrupt, and the odds of success are pathetic. As far as game design goes, corporate work is best viewed as an antigame, like an antinovel, but far more artless. While it is (like a game) a process whose main purpose is competition, it lacks the intellectual fulfillment and harmless fun of regular games. Corporate work is not defined by the joy of exploring new territory or deploying strategies, but avoidance of artificial unpleasantness: late working hours due to deadlines that serve no purpose, emotionally-charged confrontations over nothing that can nonetheless result in a 100-percent drop in income if one misplays then, et cetera.
What makes games fun (or not) is beyond the scope of this essay, but one factor is their creation of a status hierarchy different from the one in the real world. In a game of skill, the fun is in exploring the game’s structure (architectural and emergent) and climbing the skill ladder– in a meritocracy where an unskilled rich person loses to a skilled pauper. In a game with more luck, the light-hearted fun comes from the fluctuations of the in-game status hierarchy. Even a beginning player might win and be queen for an hour.
The anti-game of work is designed, instead of either of those goals, to elect as winners not the people of merit (as in a skill game) or to allow serendipitous wins (as in a luck-enhanced “party” game) but to ratify the socioeconomic status hierarchy– to make an oligarchy appear meritocratic– that already exists in the world.
Do we need office work for modern society? Probably. We don’t need so much of it. I’d guess that 75 percent of the time and 98 percent of the emotional suffering invested into it is pure waste.
Virtually every thinking person knows that what I’m saying is true. It’s shared knowledge. Yet when a person like me (a Man In Black) risks making it common knowledge, he becomes a pariah. It’s bad for morale. Her “tone” is “shrill”. He’s a bitter loser who just didn’t make it. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Millennials get a lot of flak for our role in “killing” travel, magazine subscriptions, restaurants, and other things we can’t afford because we don’t have the money that the Boomers stole when they ruined Corporate America. We’re called lazy because we don’t invest loyalty if we don’t expect reciprocation. We’re a hardscrabble, post-apocalyptic generation.
Generation X knew the corporate game was rigged, but it hadn’t become common knowledge yet. The morale problem had not achieved public liminality. We’re the ones destroying morale, one nonexistent avocado toast slice– I literally didn’t know that it was a thing; and is it toast with avocado in the dough, or as a topping?– at a time.
We’re the Men (and Women) In Black who come to the island and state what everyone already knows… and that’s why the people at the top of society hate us so much.